Sometime ago there was a cruel joke making the rounds: “Only in America could a poor young black man grow up to be a white woman.” Michael Jackson has always been an easy target for people with vicious senses of humour. What motivates our fascination, bordering on obsession with him? Simultaneously an object of ridicule, disgust, and adoration, he is an extreme example of our “star” obsessed society.
In the early part of the twentieth century Nathaniel West wrote The Day of the Locusts, a novel that dealt with this very fascination. The book ended with the lead character being swamped in a mob scene at a Hollywood premiere; crushed as people swarmed to catch a glimpse of their current hero or heroine. So no matter how much we like to talk about the good old days, the mob and the press have always been with us. It is our growing demand for gossip that fuels the engine that we pretend to despise.
The obvious answers are his undeniably immense talent, and the above mentioned excesses of eccentricity. Not since Howard Hughes has America had a stranger celebrity millionaire. Unlike Hughes though, Jackson continues to be in the public eye, allowing everyone from the media to the masses the opportunity to sit in judgment on his every move. But is it Jackson (or any celebrity for that matter) that should be under the microscope, or is it the public spectacle that surrounds these people that needs to be examined?
As a society we have been taught to worship those who are prettier, wealthier, and more successful. But there is a twist of envy embedded. They have all the rewards offered by our society without apparently having had to do the work. While 90% of us struggle they seemingly sit back and bathe in the glow of our worship.
Is it any wonder that when the cracks show though the facade that the wolves circle in for the kill? When the idol becomes human the hurry to smash the pedestal we built is our means of exacting revenge for the perceived failing of living up to the unreasonable expectations we demand as the price for their fame. As ideal representations of the American Dream fulfilled, any tarnishing of the lustre is unforgivable.
Michael Jackson began living the dream at an early age. Poor black kids from the inner city who form a singing group and make a success. The American dream come true. Fame, fortune, and international recognition. From his earliest incarnation as the young boy fronting his brothers in the Jackson Five, on to his burgeoning solo career, his talent carried him to heights undreamed of by most of us.
But like Elvis before him, his fame seems to have done nothing for his own peace of mind and self-esteem. While Elvis turned to junk food and diet pills, Michael Jackson’s dissatisfaction with himself led to self mutilation in the form of extensive plastic surgery in order to become what he deemed more acceptable.
When James Joyce wrote: “Ireland is a sow that feeds on it’s own farrow” he was referring to how the internal political strife of the country swallowed its people whole. In the case of North America our definition of the ideal existence amounts to the same thing. How many people have been devoured by the maw of image, success and stardom? How many have climbed to the top of the ladder only to discover there is no top only increased expectations? One’s fingers may clutch the brass ring but if you have no place to put your feet what good is it?
Insubstantial goals of fame and fortune, a life dedicated to satisfying the demands of strangers, and self esteem measured by popularity are the end results of some people’s American Dream. While it’s true nobody made them follow this path, that they could have opted out at any time, because, no matter what anybody says, we always have the choice to say no. It’s also true that from an early age onward we are told that to be a star is the be all and end all.
From Survivor, to American Idol all these “reality” T.V. shows emphasise the glory in being famous. They don’t just say you can be a star, they are saying you should want to be a star. As if stardom were a career not a reward for labours well done. The implications being that anything less is a failure.
Look at Michael Jackson within this context and you begin to see how he is a creature of our own creation. He has divested himself of any distinctive physical characteristics in an attempt to be what he perceives as more acceptable to a wider audience. He has made himself totally dependant on others reception of him for his happiness. All of his life he has been defined by the success or failure of his music, not by who he is as a person.
That he has become a person of no substance is reflected in his failed interpersonal relationships, his estrangement from family members, and his retreat into a fantasy world of his own creation where he can’t grow old. Having always lived by the artificial standards of “stardom” he knows no other way of being.
The sadness of Michael Jackson is that the star has eclipsed the talent. Almost forgotten in the amusement parks and the accusations is the fact that man was and maybe still is, a breathtaking performer. How often does this scenario need to be repeated before we realize there is something inherently wrong with a society the emphasise style over substance? Until then we will continue to produce misguided and unhappy people like Mr. Jackson to feed our own insatiable appetites.